Bucs' offensive struggles, slow starts magnified in loss to Falcons

ATLANTA -- One week after a thrilling 30-20 win in the final seconds against the Miami Dolphins, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers showed that without much help from their defense in the form of takeaways, they can't do much offensively. And that will continue to hold them back this season, as they fell Sunday to the Atlanta Falcons 34-20.

They also showed that slow starts are still an issue with this offense, regardless of whether Jameis Winston or Ryan Fitzpatrick is at the helm. Slow starts have been an issue on offense all season, as the Bucs average just 7.8 points in the first half, 25th in the league. Against the Falcons, they scored 18 points in the second half.

“It seems like in the second half, [when] we are down 20 points and our backs are against the wall, it's 'we have to fight,'" said right tackle Demar Dotson. "It’s more easy to fight when your back is against the wall as opposed to coming out in the beginning and trying to jump on somebody’s throat. That’s just not what we are doing."

You can point the finger at rookie safety Justin Evans for losing track of the ball on that deep touchdown pass to Julio Jones. You can also point it at second-year safety Ryan Smith, who slipped multiple times attempting to tackle Jones. Heck, you might try to blame the Mercedes-Benz Stadium turf for that. But in a division in which the other three teams averaged 28 points a game last season, the Bucs' inability to consistently score has been, and will continue to be, an issue, along with the slow starts.

Even against a Falcons squad whose offensive firepower has cooled since last season -- and division numbers are down -- the Bucs are several steps behind. Cameron Brate, the Bucs' best red zone threat, had zero targets in the first half. The Bucs' other prized tight end, first-round draft pick O.J. Howard, had zero targets in the first half as well.

"I'm not the one to point fingers at anybody. We've just gotta make more plays as an offense," said wide receiver Mike Evans, who missed two opportunities in the end zone. "We had a couple penalties that backed us up and made [for] third-and-longs, but other than that, we've just gotta make plays."

It wasn't as if the Bucs couldn't move the ball. They converted two third-down plays on a 14-play drive and ate up nearly six minutes of clock before halftime, but could only muster a 27-yard field goal, their second of the game. Patrick Murray's first field goal was from 36 yards on the opening drive.

"We had a good drive to start the game and we need to punch that down and get seven," said Dotson. "That would have been a big momentum to start the game, but instead we came out with three.”

The Bucs certainly made things interesting in the second half. After being down 27-6 at the beginning of the third quarter, they made it a one-score game. Fitzpatrick completed 18-of-26 passes (69 percent) for 212 yards in the second half. Running back Peyton Barber had two rushing touchdowns, stepping in for two-time Pro Bowler Doug Martin, who left the game with a concussion.

"They were very repetitive in their defensive playcalls," Evans said. "One of their corners went out [Desmond Trufant]. They played a lot more zone and we found a rhythm running seam routes against them. They were in a lot of zone. We just didn't make enough plays."

The Bucs did get a takeaway -- in the fourth quarter, when linebacker Kendell Beckwith forced a fumble by Terron Ward with Brent Grimes recovering it and racing 37 yards to the Tampa Bay 42. But they came away with nothing from that, unable to convert on fourth-and-1 at the Atlanta 18. That falls on head coach Dirk Koetter, who opted not to run the ball on either play despite Barber's success in the red zone and instead, on fourth-and-1, targeted Brate, who had one catch the entire game.

"I told the players I should have given them a better play. It didn’t work so that is on me," Koetter said. "You have three or four plays on your sheet for that situation and I picked the wrong one.”

Fitzpatrick added: “I thought it was a really good playcall. I wish I would have been able to execute better. That’s a play as a quarterback you love to hear. Coach has some confidence in you to go out there and do it. [We] just didn’t get it done. That one hurt just in terms of coming back. It’s 27-20 and the defense gets the fumble. We had some major momentum there and that was obviously the play of the game that wasn’t made.”

But it wasn't just that play. The fact that they had four takeaways on defense last week and were able to get only 17 points from them tells you something: This offense -- Koetter's offense -- should be better, especially with how much talent is on it.

This doesn't excuse the Bucs' defensive performance against Jones. He had a monster day with 253 receiving yards and 268 yards from scrimmage. This also doesn't excuse the Bucs surrendering 516 yards of total offense. But Jones has and always will be a monster. You don't stop players like him -- although other teams have done a far better job keeping him out of the end zone this season -- you just minimize the damage. The offense has to be able to foot the bill sometimes, too, and they know it.

"I wish I had the answer. Every guy works hard every week and executes the plays called," said Howard, who finished the game with three catches for 52 yards, including a 20-yard grab that set up Barber's first touchdown. "I don’t know where to start, but hopefully we can turn it around.”

At 4-7 and 0-3 in the division right now, that seems rather unlikely.